Culture of Life
As Sidewalk Counselor, Brooklyn Priest Visits ‘Modern-Day Calvary’
Increasingly strict laws haven't deterred his routine of prayer and talking with women seeking abortions
BY Brian Caulfield
July 5-11, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/5/98 at 1:00 PM
National Affairs Correspondent
NEW YORK-By the end of next month, Msgr. Philip Reilly's passport will have the stampings of a well-traveled diplomat. Wherever he goes, however, for him the destination is always the same — modern-day Calvary.
Founder and director of the Helpers of God's Precious Infants in Brooklyn, New York, he recently left on a tour of 10 European countries and 21 cities to teach the methods of prayer and sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics that help to save thousands of unborn babies in America each year. Despite increasingly restrictive laws in New York City and nationwide, and a lawsuit brought by abortionists charging him with an interstate conspiracy in restraint of trade, he has spread the Helpers' message in more than 50 U.S. dioceses.
He spends most mornings in front of New York City's largest abortion clinic, rosary beads in one hand, pro-life literature in the other, talking to young pregnant women about the love and mercy of God, and the resources available for them if they decide to keep their babies.
“Our goal, our purpose, is not only to save the physical life of the child. What we aim for ultimately is the conversion of hearts and the salvation of souls,” Msgr. Reilly said. “We seek to join the Blessed Mother and St. John at the foot of the cross, the modern-day Calvary at the abortion mills, where the image of Christ among us today is being crucified. Even if we don't succeed in changing a woman's mind and saving her baby, at least we are there to pray and to express our love for the baby before he is destroyed.”
The pro-abortion counselors and abortionists need prayers just as much as the women and their babies, because God desires their salvation as well, he said.
The Helpers began in New York in October 1989 with a handful of pro-life activists who for years had been quietly going to the clinics to pray and counsel. Operation Rescue was just swinging into full gear at the time, blocking clinic entrances in many cities and gearing up for the massive movements that recalled the social disobedience protests of the '60s. Despite this pro-life success, Msgr. Reilly was thinking long-term. The number of people who can afford to spend time in jail with Operation Rescue is relatively small, he concluded. There must be a way for the average family man or woman to become involved in pro-life work on a regular basis without the threat of a major disruption in their lives.
He formalized the efforts of his small group and in June 1990 gained media attention when Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily joined the Helpers, celebrating Mass and leading a prayer procession that attracted hundreds of pro-lifers and dozens of pro-abortion clinic “defenders.” The bishop assigned Msgr. Reilly full-time to pro-life work (he had been rector of the diocesan high school seminary) and has joined the Helpers one Saturday most months during the years.
In July 1992, right before the Democratic National Convention in New York that nominated Bill Clinton for the first time, John Cardinal O'Connor led a procession through the streets of midtown Manhattan. The Helpers gained national attention from this effort and since then Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and 50 other bishops have brought their people in procession and prayer to local abortion clinics. Msgr. Reilly visited Australia and New Zealand two years ago to organize Helpers groups Down Under, and his current European excursion is his most ambitious yet. He is working with the bishops in 15 dioceses located in England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Hungary.
In each diocese, he will hold a seminar for local pro-life activists, explaining the Helpers' methods, stressing their prayerful approach, and giving out the Helpers booklets, which are organized for three periods of hourly prayer, including 15 decades of the rosary and the stations of the cross. He will conduct an evening vigil before the Blessed Sacrament and the next morning celebrate Mass and lead people out to an abortion clinic to pray. In some dioceses, the bishop will join the group. The goal is to inspire a handful of leaders in each area to continue spreading the message and teaching the methods.
“Whether they call themselves Helpers of God's Precious Infants or something else, the work is the same,” said Msgr. Reilly. “This is God's work and we rely totally on his help and on the powerful intercession of the Mother of God.”
Some pro-life activists have expressed reservations about the intensely spiritual approach of the Helpers. Prayer and counseling are fine, they say, but may lead pro-lifers away from what they consider to be more effective ways of saving babies, such as Rescue or lobbying to get laws changed. Msgr. Reilly understands the criticisms but thinks there is a place for each activity. God will organize the pro-life movement if each member remains faithful, he said.
“If we could change the laws tomorrow, we would,” he said, “but even if the laws were changed, women would still seek and get abortions. To truly end abortion, we need to change hearts, to seek conversions. We will never succeed except by bringing Christ. We know that in Christ's view, the most important thing is to have every person he has created with him in heaven — that is why he died, to bring salvation. We are to have the mind of Christ, which means to intensely desire the salvation not only of the babies, but of the mothers, their husbands or boyfriends, the clinic workers, and the abortionists. We may not like them, we may hate what they do, but the only way they will convert is if we love them and sacrifice ourselves for them.”
He works closely with Sister Dorothy Rothar, a Sister of St. Joseph, who sidewalk counsels in Brooklyn each morning and trains local pro-lifers in the Helpers' methods. Jane Scheulke, who works in neighborhood development for New York Catholic Charities, took her class two years ago.
“The most valuable part of her training is her enthusiasm. She convinced me that I could do this and got me over my fears about approaching total strangers and talking about this very sensitive issue of pregnancy and abortion,” said Scheulke.
Steve Raiser, who sidewalk counsels in Manhattan weekday mornings, said, “You have to make it a priority. If you think that your presence in front of a mill that morning may help save someone's life, that gets you up and out, no matter the weather.”
He works for Holy Innocents Church, in the very secular Garment District, where a Shrine to Children Who Have Died Unborn was blessed four years ago by Cardinal O'Connor. Women who have suffered miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion are encouraged to name their lost babies in the shrine's book and write out prayer petitions. Letters arrive from all over the world from people who have seen the Shrine's Web site.
“You hear so much about a woman's right to choose,” said Raiser, “but we see the other side that fewer women talk about. We see the pain, the hurt, the guilt that so many feel over having had an abortion.”
Recently, a young woman entering a Manhattan abortion clinic had her hand on the door handle when Raiser held out a pro-life pamphlet.
She stopped and told him that she had no choice since the abortionist had already implanted the larminaria, the seaweed sticks that dilate the cervix, and told her they could not be removed. Raiser took her to a pro-life pregnancy center and made arrangements for her to enter St. Vincent's Hospital, where she delivered a healthy though premature baby.
“That makes it all worth it, to save a life,” he said.
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.
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